I’ve spent most of the last decade cooling off about the Church. I’ve cooled to the point where I’m pretty cold about it. The frigid air started when I “came out”, which was when I was presented the option of getting rid of my partner (who is now my married spouse) or leaving all my missionary and formal pastoral roles. It took about four years for the Church and me to understand each other: namely, for it to be quite clear that I was not going to withdraw back into the closet and that the Church had no further use for me. Our separation has been quite complete. Any lingering relationship is retrospective, based on affinities with former churches and irrevocable bequests such as my three theological degrees and my status as retired.
I draw on my six decades of commitment and familiarity with the Church to write complex critiques of the Church as a reliable representative of God in Christ, and the Church steadfastly ignores me and what I write. I write for the same reason some people go to cemeteries to talk to deceased lovers. It makes us feel better. But there is no prospect of reversing history.
I’ve come to the point where I doubt the Church and I can ever be reconciled. But if it were to happen it would be sacred music that does it. I was reminded of that this past week when Christmas brought out the grandest and most impressive performances of the Church year. The Church has nothing as profound to offer as the lure, the inspiration, the evocation, and the power of sacred music. Nothing that the Church says, none of the rituals, festivals, events, or feasts that the Church puts on have the potential of thawing a frozen heart as its music does.
Who Sets Christmas?
Christmas has changed for me over the years. I can remember how it used to be when I was a little boy, before Santa Claus was demythologized. There was excitement, and sleep-depriving anticipation, with never a hint that it could be otherwise. There was always Santa Claus coming to our house because there were always little children; from the time I was born until my youngest brother was 9, was a period of 22 years. Christmas was a product of other people all that time. We kids were recipients. For a lot of those years Christmas Day included a trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s for a big family dinner that Grandpa mandated. OK, that was block one of my life.
Then I came to Thailand. Big change. Looking back, there was a search many of us here were making for familiar markers. We found them in fragments: simulated Christmas trees, similar food to Christmas fare “back home”, somewhat the same carols, gifts wrapped in paper as close as we could get to Christmas designs. But most of the old Christmas was gone. Block two.
For the next ten years Christmas meant I was in charge of preserving the reason for the season, as the pastor of a church. Our children were small, money was short, we made most of the presents, went to church, and traveled to grandparents, who were now of the next generation younger. Block three.
Then back to Thailand. Commerce had caught up with Thailand by 1979. There was less need to simulate familiar symbols. We could just go buy them, imported right into Tantrapan’s department store. But we missed the family gatherings and expanded our family on Christmas to compensate. About that time we became creative of Christmas traditions without trying too hard to rustle up things from far away out of the dim past.
Twenty-five years later, after the end of block five, Pramote and I are in block six of my Christmas traditions, but it’s block one for him. He was 50 on 12/12/12. For 40 years there was no Christmas in his life. Now we are creating Buddhist-Christian Christmas traditions. We have strung lights in our palm trees and have poinsettias around our terracotta statue of Genesha. We throw a Christmas party for the children in our village school. They know about Christmas, but we help them have it. We let Pramote’s family know its Christmas by giving them presents, and we take presents to my daughter and family in Chiang Mai in the evening. I am now patriarch of the grandparent generation. All the older generation is gone. It’s our turn now. Christmas is what we say it is.
Two Paths to Christmas
I think there are two basic ways into a faith community, otherwise known as a religion: to be born into it or to migrate into it. If one is born into faith, the hold it has on one is either focused on social-cultural and ritual aesthetic values or on intellectual-conceptual ones, or sometimes, eventually both. Migration can be by either of those two pathways, as well, although doctrines and belief structures may play a greater role in one’s decision to join a faith community if the decision comes later in life.
It is my observation that for the majority of people born in a faith community, the theology or philosophical core of the faith is a framework upon which the cultic and social activities are draped and validated. The power and attraction of the religion is derived from the celebrations. The celebrations make mention of certain beliefs usually commemorating an event in the life of the central character of the religion, which, in turn, are symbolized in strongly cultural forms. The hold on adherents is also increased if those celebrations are community-social events and if the adherent is deeply engrafted in the community.
Christmas is coming. Let that be an example.
For people born and raised in Christianity, Christmas is exciting. It is all about the birth of Jesus symbolized in such cultural things as Christmas trees, Christmas carols and Christmas presents. Recalling and appreciating the theological issues takes a second level of effort. But for a recent convert to Christianity the whole idea of Jesus being born the Son of God may be much more central, and the rest is cultural and traditional decoration (the way “true Christians” and theologians insist it should be).
The path into philosophical conviction is steep. Few outsiders make it into faith that way. That’s what’s wrong with letting theologians and philosophers design and control the pathways and gateways into a religion. What they design is more likely to be elevated and without ladders. But if it is left up to a social group, like a family, they will have you decorating Christmas trees before anything else.
Random Ruminations on Burma
The president of Payap University and a team of administrators went to Rangoon (Yangon) Burma (Myanmar) last week to assist HE the Ambassador of Thailand to celebrate the 85th birthday of HM the King of Thailand, which is Thailand’s national day. We took a troupe of four dancers and a group of five jazz musicians.
In reflecting on the week, it may have been incidental things that made the strongest initial impression on me. There are too many to mention, so just three:
The Shwe Dagon Buddhist Temple in the heart of the city is (like Angkor Wat for Cambodia) the nation’s central icon and most significant symbol of Burmese culture. It is also one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world, and one of the holiest. Rules demand one remove one’s shoes. Certain British colonists earned immense disdain by trying to refuse to do so. The monk who opposed them is a hero with a statue on a pillar in one of the city’s traffic circles. But recognition of holiness is a deeper matter. I found few Christians in our group could discern holiness in that place and knew what to do about it.
We visited a music school in a deteriorating part of town. I was enthralled by the high quality of the music, especially the close-harmony singing of a young male quartet whose first number was announced as a song supporting gay relationships. It was a throw-away comment, but I caught it. It led to a short chat after the recital about how homosexuality is still illegal in Burma, but the law is not enforced. I know there are gays everywhere and a gay Christian group has just published and launched a Burmese language edition of “The Children Are Free”, a book affirming Christian homosexuality as consistent with Christian scripture.
The Burmese national costume for men is a sarong (a tube of cloth in a plaid design) worn with a white collarless shirt buttoned at the neck with a glittering jewel; at night men add a black shirt-jacket tied shut. Traditionally they wear nothing under that. They get my vote for comfort, cost and … uh … convenience. Who says skirts are just for women?
Here in Chiang Mai this has been a weekend for us to stand up and step forward.
Day before yesterday (Friday) a group of NGOs clustered around M-Plus in a rally on the plaza in front of Kad Suan Kaew shopping mall to mark Gender Diversity Rights Day in conjunction with Transgender Awareness Week. This is essentially a social-political movement to draw attention to the need for legal rights and protections. I notice that we do it differently here from groups with similar goals in Ohio and London who recently held nude protests. We made do with classical performances by transgender dancers from the 10 ASEAN countries of South East Asia, and speeches to open a four-day “ASEAN LGBTIQ Film Festival”.
Yesterday, December 1, was World AIDS Day. M+ and friends were back with new banners, familiar red ribbons, and speeches with a medical theme. The battle against the HIV-AIDS pandemic is far from over. Drugs have been developed which usually can partially control the virus, but there are still major issues: the drugs are not always available to those who need them because they are expensive, there is still no inoculation to prevent the disease, and it is spreading. Our own gay population stays at high risk, and honestly, brothers and sisters, our risky behavior is the big problem. Thai statistics show the rate of new infections is once again rising fastest in the young, male, gay sector.
Come on guys, you’ve got 60 high quality years yet to live. Don’t blow any of it for a three-minute thrill.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.